know about Racial Justice on the Ballot for New York City Voters This Fall
What it took to achieve racial equity with voters, and what remains to be done.
If New York City’s municipal government got a grade right now for its contributions to racial equity, it would probably be a failing grade, though no worse than any other government.
“I would go so far as to say that, by a racial justice standard, the city is an abject failure just the way it is,” says Lurie Daniel Favors, an attorney and CEO of the Medgar Evers College Center for Law and Social Justice.
As a member of the New York City Commission on Racial Justice, Daniel Favors has spent the last few months helping draft a set of three ballot questions that she says would put the city on a path to improve that rating. She doesn’t expect progress to come quickly or without a few missteps along the way, but that’s okay.
“We are currently in a state of perpetuating failure after failure,” says Daniel Favors. “So try to do it right and maybe not do it perfect? I agree with that as long as we move from the level of sustained failure because failures, as long as they are taken by non-white people, have always been an acceptable built-in outcome of any calculation. Thanks to this work, I hope it can no longer be like that”.
Then-Mayor Bill De Blasio convened the New York City Commission on Racial Justice last March and tasked it with drafting revisions to the city charter, which require final approval by voter referendum.
Given the pandemic and the local elections that have attracted a lot of attention over the past year, there have not been ideal conditions for public participation. But after months of public meetings, input sessions and occasionally heated deliberations, the commission submitted its three ballot proposals to the City Clerk’s Office just days before the administration was due to end at the close of 2021.
New York City voters will be able to decide on those ballot questions this fall, in the general election scheduled for Nov. 8.
The first ballot question asks voters for approval to add a preamble to the city charter, a broad statement of values and beliefs like the one that opens the US Constitution and the charter of New York City it currently does not have a preamble, which came as a surprise to members of the Commission on Racial Justice.
The language of the proposed preamble declares that the city is a “multiracial democracy, and that our diversity is our strength.” It sets goals for city government, such as providing every New Yorker with “a safe, healthy, and sustainable living environment,” “a resilient neighborhood,” “vibrant and welcoming public spaces,” and “resources necessary to prosper economically and create wealth.” . .”
But it also includes language that acknowledges “the grave injustices and atrocities that are part of our country’s history, including the forced labor of enslaved Africans, colonialism that displaced indigenous peoples from their lands, devaluation and underpayment.” of immigrant workers and the discrimination, racial segregation, mass incarceration, and other forms of violence and systemic inequity that continue to be experienced by marginalized groups.”
If New York City voters approve the ballot question this fall, such a statement would be enshrined in their city charter during a period when some across the country have been trying to silence any discussion of that history. and ongoing oppression.
“I think there will be a huge backlash against him, and that’s fine,” says J. Phillip Thompson, a commission member and former deputy mayor under the de Blasio administration. “We need to have these conversations. That is part of what it means to create a more just society. And, you know, it’s about time the city and our country confronted our past. What we have done, the narrative of America and the narrative of New York has been told primarily by people who are not of color, who have not borne the brunt of the injustices that we are trying to address.”
The second ballot question, if passed, would create a new Office of Racial Equity and require a citywide racial equity plan as well as agency-by-agency racial equity plans. There would be a requirement for annual reporting on progress or lack thereof under those plans, and the plans would have to be updated every two years.
There would also be a new Commission on Racial Equity made up of city residents who would weigh in on racial equity plans, serve as a clearinghouse for public complaints about agency conduct that may be exacerbating racial equity, and offer recommendations for agencies address those complaints. .
Other local governments across the country have created racial equity offices in recent years, such as Los Angeles, San Jose, San Francisco, Montgomery County in Maryland, or the District of Columbia. They vary in function and power, and may evolve or expand over time, especially as racial equity data becomes more available or accessible.
Tacoma, Washington established its Office of Equity and Human Rights in 2015. As I previously reported, beginning in 2020, every Tacoma city council action memorandum must include the city’s equity index for any neighborhood involving the proposed action, as well as an analysis of how that action might affect the equity index score for that neighborhood or the city as a whole. Similarly, in DC since 2021, all local legislation has had to be evaluated for racial equity, Reported DCist.
The Office of Racial Equity that New Yorkers could approve this fall would have the “power and duty” to establish practices and standards for measuring and reporting racial equity data citywide and agency-by-agency. Everything from each agency’s diversity hiring policies, salaries or promotions to its private sector buyouts and acquisitions to its core functions, would be considered in each agency’s racial equity plan. While some goals like pay equity or equitable acquisition may be similar across agencies, each agency’s racial equity plan and how it measures progress would be specific to what that particular agency does. The Office of Racial Equity would be tasked with helping agencies develop those plans and updating them every two years.
The commissioners intend that the annual racial equity data reports will help galvanize outside organizers to push for ongoing change over time and institute ways to hold agencies accountable for poor racial equity performance.
“I would love to see successive generations of activists increase the penalties, increase the teeth, increase the pain that an agency has to endure when they sit on that failure,” says Daniel Favors. “There is a limit to what we could do with it at this round, but there are more rounds and a lot of us will still be here.”
The proposed citywide racial equity planning process would be aligned every two years along a timeline tied to the city’s annual budget process. That’s intentional, Thompson says, as a way to increase the likelihood that the racial equity planning process can inform how the city spends money each year.
“It will be more work at first, but also, the results will probably be much stronger,” says Thompson. “I mean, the city spends a lot of money paying for social services and jails because we didn’t spend enough money to make sure people had access to quality services and education or year-round learning opportunities in the first place. I think at the end of the day these equity measures will make spending more effective.”
Thompson, also a professor of urban planning at MIT, is among the small but growing field of academics, analysts and even some investors who believe that a more racially just budget is a more fiscally sound budget.
“I really think that’s the case, and I want us to rigorously track these programs and our spending so we can prove that,” says Thompson.
The Racial Justice Commission debated whether or not to require a racial equity impact assessment of the city budget before approving it. But in the end, most agreed that the challenge of finding a methodology for such an assessment, never done before, posed too great a risk for the city to go through the budget process. If a budget is not passed, there is a risk that the state will step in to manage the city’s budget.
The third and final ballot initiative of the New York City Commission on Racial Justice would direct the city to create and annually publish a new “cost of living measure” as an alternative to federal poverty measures. It could potentially be used to help establish eligibility for public benefits administered by the city. Commissioners heard from many residents and social service providers that current federal poverty measures do not accurately reflect the true cost of living in New York, leaving too many families clearly in need but ineligible for public assistance.
“If we don’t focus on what it really costs to live in a city like New York and rely entirely on outdated and outdated federal policy measures, then we are underestimating the needs and experiences of people made vulnerable by structural racism.” says Jennifer Jones Austin, who chairs the New York City Commission on Racial Justice and also serves as executive director of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.
The commission’s work is not done. Now he has to take on the job of educating voters about the ballot measures they have a chance to vote on next fall. Legally, the commission cannot advocate for voters to vote yes or no, it can only educate and explain what the proposals say and why they came up with them.
“Legislation is not always binding in perpetuity,” says Jones Austin. “A legislative body can decide to go ahead and enact laws and practice certain value beliefs, but it can be changed and overturned. It’s not so easy to override when you embed values and beliefs into the structural foundation of the laws, and that’s what city charter is.”
The commission recognizes that for these city charter changes to mean anything, they would have to start with an acknowledgment of history and an honest assessment of the city’s current state of racial equity, which is not a good thing, to say the least. gently.
“The people who live in this city know that things are bad,” says Thompson. “It’s not going to be a surprise to them.”
Oscar is the chief economics correspondent for Next City. He previously served as the editor of Next City from 2018 to 2019 and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015 to 2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing, and more for media outlets like Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha and Fast Company.